02/13/2008 12:00AM

NYRA prepared to shut Big A


New York Racing Association officials continued Monday to reject a deal presented by Joe Bruno, the state senate majority leader, to extend NYRA's franchise for 25 years. With two days to go until NYRA's short-term extension expires, the association is going ahead with plans to close Aqueduct on Thursday, officials said.

Steven Duncker, NYRA's chairman, said in a statement Monday that the Bruno proposal "does not provide the proper business model and economic terms that permits NYRA to emerge from bankruptcy nor does it correct the broken business model of Thoroughbred racing in New York."

The statement cited differences between Bruno and NYRA about how NYRA's board should be restructured. "The newly proposed structure would politicize the board," the statement said. Bruno has said that the agreement would give state officials 10 appointments to a 21-seat board.

Duncker declined to comment about the statement.

Any deal to extend NYRA's franchise to conduct racing at Aqueduct, Belmont, and Saratoga - which expired on Dec. 31, 2007 - has to be approved by Gov. Eliot Spitzer, the assembly, and the senate. The assembly is controlled by Democrats and is led by Speaker Sheldon Silver. The Republican-controlled senate is led by Bruno.

NYRA told its employees and horsemen last Wednesday to prepare for the possibility of a shutdown on Feb. 14. The second of two short-term extensions that NYRA negotiated with a state regulatory body expires Wednesday night.

A group of 100 NYRA employees was scheduled to visit Albany on Tuesday to voice support for some kind of solution. NYRA is providing buses for the employees from Aqueduct racetrack.

Over the weekend, Bruno continued to maintain that a deal was imminent. Both Bruno and NYRA want to avoid being seen as the party responsible for a shutdown.

Aqueduct's racing office took entries as usual on Monday for the Thursday card.

Negotiators are working on a 178-page draft bill that was prepared at Bruno's direction. According to Bruno, the agreement would extend NYRA's franchise until 2033 in exchange for the state's taking undisputed title to the three racetracks. The agreement would also provide NYRA with up to $105 million to help the association emerge from bankruptcy. NYRA filed for bankruptcy late in 2006, contending that it held title to the tracks, a position disputed by the state.

Officials involved in the negotiations have declined to make the draft legislation available.

The current negotiations appear to revolve around small but numerous issues, according to an official involved in the negotiations. NYRA has publicized its opposition to Bruno's board structure because the issue is the most prominent and easily understood among NYRA's list of concerns.

NYRA's board currently has 28 seats. Eight of those seats are appointed by the state, with the rest reserved for NYRA. The board currently has five vacancies, including the seat held by Charles Wait, an upstate Republican businessman who resigned 10 days ago in order to publicly criticize Bruno. Another vacancy is for the seat formerly held by Wayne Barr, who resigned in 2006. Barr was appointed by Bruno.

The New York legislature is notorious for last-minute agreements, and although Duncker said that NYRA's review process of the agreement has indicated that the "franchise discussions are going backward, not forward," an agreement prior to the extension's expiration is still possible.

If not, NYRA is expected to go to bankruptcy court on Thursday in an attempt to get the court to force an automatic stay that would prohibit the state from installing any other operator for the tracks. The association has then threatened to pursue its land claim in court, a legal question that could take years to resolve.